Smart Thinking
NJ’s School Counselor of the Year shares back-to-school tips
By Klein Aleardi

Laura Fortson-Williams wants her students to think of her as the fun auntie – the one who lets them have soda or stay up late. Not because she encourages them to break the rules, but because she’ll always have their back. 

As a school counselor at Deptford Township Middle School and the 2023 New Jersey School Counselor of the year, Laura has an extensive knowledge when it comes to helping students navigate classrooms, mental health and more. She shares some insights for getting your kids ready to head back to school. 

 Q: Do you have any methods to make the back-to-school transition easier? 

The bottom line of summer is: Sitting and scrolling is one of the worst things for your kids. I know it’s so tempting and so comfortable, but the best thing for your kids during the summer is to keep their brains and their bodies moving. 

 Q: Are there activities you especially like? 

I’m a big fan of unstructured daily learning to foster curiosity in your kids, whether that’s with at-home science experiments – like making ice cream in a bag – or free community events. I also tell parents to encourage reading, no matter what that means for their child. It can be a graphic novel or nonfiction, either way, it will keep their minds engaged. 

 Q: Should we give our kids daily assignments? 

It doesn’t need to be so structured. I like to use learning goals for students. For example, you can set an expectation that each week your student will finish 60 minutes of reading – that’s less than 10 minutes a day. Or if they’re going into a tough math section in the fall, you can set weekly goals like: By the end of the week, they’ll have reviewed 10 pages in Algebra I. 

 Q: Do you have any advice for parents who think their child may have a learning disability? 

The first thing to do is figure out if your child actually has a diagnosis. We have a child study team that handles 98% of the diagnosing and then support once diagnosed, but before they’re brought in, you need to make sure your child has all the support they need to learn at their best. That means making sure they have the resources they need in the classroom and have access to extra help hours if they’re struggling. You don’t want to go through the process of testing, then find out all your child needed was an extra hour or 2 of help each week.  

 Q: How can parents help with the stigma around learning disabilities? 

I always urge parents to ask themselves: Is it a disability or a difference? It’s called a learning disability, but it doesn’t have to mean that a student is less intelligent, just that they learn differently than others. They might have some trouble with writing, but could be very quick at picking up math concepts. 

 Q: What kind of relationship should parents have with teachers? 

The parent/teacher relationship is so important. It should be akin to co-parenting. Teachers and parents should be working together for the student. They should support each other and be united, as long as everyone is doing the right thing. Most importantly, communication needs to be respectful. We’re all on the same side – we want what’s best for these kids.

 Q: How big of an issue is students’ mental health? 

Mental health was always something students had to manage and teachers, counselors and administrators had to look out for, but with Covid-19 and the shutdown, more people became aware of it. It was a traumatic time for these kids, and trauma hurts developing brains. It doesn’t allow the brain to develop and grow in the way it would have normally – and every student experienced some kind of trauma during the pandemic. 

 Q: Do you have any tips for parents to help students manage mental health? 

My #1 tip is to monitor their social media use. I get it, I’m a parent too, and it’s hard to do that sometimes. But we can’t control what others post on social media, and we bought these phones, so we have to be responsible for them. You want to know what your child is seeing every day. 

 Q: That’s #1. Are there more tips? 

Yes, number 2 is to encourage open, supportive and non-judgemental communication. It doesn’t have to be between the parent and the child, but there needs to be someone – an adult – who your child feels comfortable talking to about things. Just imagine if they were dealing with some negativity online and they didn’t feel they had anyone to talk to. It could be their aunt, their grandma, their counselor, it really does take a village. 

 Q: And number 3? 

Encourage self-care. Teach it to them. They’re going to need healthy coping mechanisms, whether that’s journaling or deep breathing during heated moments, because you won’t always be there to talk them through it. Make sure they have the tools to get through it on their own. 

And my final tip is if you don’t understand any aspect of your child’s mental health, bring in a professional. If I wasn’t very good at math and my son was struggling in his math class, I would get him a tutor. This is the same idea.   

August 2023
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